Just a few hours after Gov. Greg Abbott announced a new wave of lessened restrictions on Texas businesses, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner predictably criticized the move, arguing that Abbott is being reckless by allowing many types of businesses across much of the state to expand their occupancy limits from 50 to 75 percent.
“Far too many people have lost their lives. Far too many people have gotten infected with this virus, and now as we begin to approach the flu season and our kids are starting soon to go back to school, this is not the time to take an aggressive approach in dealing with this virus,” Turner said in a Thursday afternoon press conference.
Abbott announced earlier Thursday that starting Monday, retail stores, restaurants, office buildings, manufacturing businesses, museums, libraries and gyms can bump up their operating capacities to 75 percent in Houston and other parts of the state where the percentage of hospital patients with COVID-19 has stayed below 15 percent for seven consecutive days. Bars will remain closed statewide, and Abbott gave no indication as to when they might be allowed to open.
Only the areas surrounding Laredo, Victoria and the Rio Grande Valley aren’t included in this latest round of reopening expansion due to ongoing COVID-19 hospitalization rates above Abbott’s new 15 percent threshold in those parts of the state.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo didn't go nearly as far as Turner in her response to Abbott’s announcement. “Thanks to the hard work and sacrifice of our residents, trends are moving in the right direction, but we cannot let our guard down and we are not out of the woods,” Hidalgo said in a statement Thursday afternoon, appearing to subtly hint that she wouldn’t have recommend more reopenings as soon as Abbott has.
But she then praised Abbott for “adhering to a numbers-based threshold to guide his decision making” and said she’s glad “that he has agreed to provide certain jurisdictions carve outs,” as opposed to going with a more rigid, statewide approach.
On Thursday, the Houston Health Department reported 267 new cases of COVID-19 within Houston — 115 of which are from the past two weeks — and seven more deaths from the coronavirus, resulting in a cumulative total of 70,064 cases across the city and 998 deaths since the start of the pandemic. Across all of Harris County, there have been 121,628 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1,635 deaths as of Thursday.
If it were up to him, Dr. David Persse of the Houston Health Department said he wouldn’t have authorized more reopenings as quickly and to the extent that Abbott has, especially given the uncertainty as to whether or not students heading back to school will contribute to increased spread of COVID-19 across the state.
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“I agree with the mayor. I probably would have waited and had a better idea of what’s going on with the schools before I considered doing anything else,” Persse said.
Turner, who just last week announced that a limited number of public events in certain venues would be allowed if they comply with social distancing guidelines and adhere to 25 percent or less capacity guidelines, said that he wished Abbott would have opted for a more measured reopening strategy.
He cautioned that the most trying days of the pandemic in Texas came after Texas’s first round of reopening back in May, which he criticized as being too much too soon at the time, and said he hopes that a similarly large uptick in cases and deaths doesn’t come in the weeks ahead.
“We don’t want this to be déjà vu. We’ve been at this point before,” Turner said.